ANKENY, Iowa — At first, she liked Texas Gov. Rick Perry. He was about faith and family, just as she is. Then she heard Perry debate.
And then she liked Rep. Michele Bachmann. Another assertive Christian. But that ended, too: "She has kind of an annoying voice."
So then Susan Fredregill — a 58-year-old retiree with six grandchildren to watch — moved on to her third candidate of this chaotic presidential primary season. She liked former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
At least for a few days.
"Let's just pick the smart one," Fredregill thought. "And get it over with."
This is what Iowa's epic case of political indecision looks like, from the inside.
With the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses seven days away, voters have already cycled through four Republican front-runners. The latest is Rep. Ron Paul, whose poll numbers rose last week as Gingrich's lead deflated.
This political promiscuity is a little embarrassing for people who picture themselves in a state-size Norman Rockwell painting: America's sober, decisive First Voters. Now, many Iowans can't stop changing their minds.
Some want the most electable candidate. Others want the purest conservative. They think they've got their choice — and then they don't. Many Iowans say they're frustrated by their inability to find a candidate.
Three of their stories may help answer a question at the heart of a young campaign season: Why can't Iowa make up its mind?
"Thank God it's the Christmas holidays. Because I think we need some time to ourselves," said Jeff Jorgensen, 57. "The whole state does."
Jorgensen, chairman of the Republican Party in Pottawatomie County, is trying to find a candidate who can combine his personal need for a true conservative with the party's need for somebody who can win.
He liked former pizza executive Herman Cain: an outsider. Then he liked Gingrich, for his debate skills and experience. But he didn't like what he learned about the speaker's baggage.
So who will it be? Jorgensen talks his way through the other candidates, like a man recounting dollar bills in search of a twenty that wasn't there the first time. Perry? Failed to meet his expectations. Bachmann? Lost her lead already. Paul? His foreign policy.
Mitt Romney? "He ran in (1996), and he ran in 2008. His name back then was Bob Dole and John McCain," he said, saying that Romney and those two losing nominees are all too moderate in their beliefs.
Right now, Jorgensen said he's most interested in former Sen. Rick Santorum because of his strong conservative views on social issues. "There's not a position that he has that I disagree with." But Santorum is still a second-tier candidate. Could he really win? Would he really be up to the task of being president?
"These are extraordinary times, and it just takes an exceptional candidate," Jorgensen said. "I have faith that whoever we nominate will step up to the plate, and be that exceptional candidate."
"As soon as you start to be sure about a candidate, they'll get blown out of the water," said Don Rivers, 68, in Cedar Rapids.
Rivers was talking about the weight of being an Iowan right now. The importance of deciding, before the Jan. 3 caucuses that are supposed to give an anxious country its cue. "It's so darn important that we've got to stay on top of it," Rivers said. "We've got to do our part."
Rivers is a retired book editor and marketing and sales executive who now drives Iowa's highways to sell greeting cards to gift shops. When this campaign season began, he wanted one thing above all: somebody who could beat President Barack Obama.
"If he has four more years, we will be just like Greece," he said.
At first, that seemed like Perry: Rivers loved his record of job creation in Texas. Then Perry flubbed his debates. He liked Cain, a fellow businessman and a Washington outsider. But then Cain suspended his campaign.
Then, Rivers shifted his allegiance to Gingrich. It was a rather joyless choice: Gingrich was an insider in Washington.
But at least, Rivers felt, he wasn't Obama. And he could win.
But then Iowa was barraged with negative ads about Gingrich's "baggage": his fine for a House ethics violation, his global-warming TV ad with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Now, Rivers is thinking about his fourth candidate of this campaign cycle: Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
"I think Romney probably has an edge" with voters in the general election, Rivers said. He thinks Romney is wishy-washy as a conservative. But this year, Rivers wants what other people want: "I think they'll feel safe with him."
Fredregill — the grandmother who had given up on Perry and Bachmann — stayed with Gingrich for less than a week.
She had chosen him out of resignation. Fredregill believes that God is punishing America for a host of sins: gay marriage, abortion, soft support of Israel, greed.
Her own life had suffered, too. One daughter lost a house and saw her full-time job turn part-time. Another daughter divorced. She babysat the grandkids, sometimes tending so many at one time that going to the swimming pool took two trips.
"The country's going to go down the toilet," she thought then. No matter who was president.
But then, something happened. Fredregill was home tending to a grandson with the flu, and she saw a TV report that U.S. troops had left Iraq, suffering no casualties as they went. God, she saw, had protected them.
So then God might be willing to give the country a second chance. And so, in an instant, Fredregill had a new, fourth presidential candidate. Not "the smart one," but one who agreed with her on issues like Israel, abortion and gay marriage.
Finally, a candidate that excited her, even if he probably can't win.
"Why am I giving up on our country" if God was not? Fredregill said, banging her fist on the table. "It was just this big epiphany. We've got to vote for Santorum! That's all there is to it."